Mid-November, I am familiar with this place. This time of year, the temperature is cooling, the air is dry and brisk. It always begins as a thick, leafy, abundant food source. A place where you need to be under the right tree, at the right time. They could be anywhere. And with the number of nut trees in this area, anywhere is exactly where they were. Anywhere but here.
As I dressed for my hunt, I contemplated which weapon would be my choice for this afternoon: one of two rifles or my bow. Knowing how thick the woods are and how many acres of hardwoods I will be entering, I of course chose the latter. My demise, as will soon be evident.
My stand is about five hundred yards from my cabin, atop a hill. Tucked into the Georgia thickets, it’s a work in progress, but comfortable. I have been on this property for eight years now and I know exactly how it will go. I will start walking and with a slight breeze, the sound of my footsteps will echo into the next county. As I began my walk, I quickly realize this is an understatement. I could hear a single leaf hit the forest floor. How I could ever believe I can get into position to stalk a buck in these conditions, I’ll never know.
Yet, I try. I walked down the same path I have for years and, knowing when to raise my awareness, I slow down. Every step tells me I have alerted all creatures to my presence. Even so, I continued. I get to the edge of the hardwood stand and stop to scan the lot. It’s around eight to ten acres with a couple of rolling hills as it climbs to the top of the stand to the south of me. I travel east and the wind is from the northwest. Not the best approach, but my only choice.
My intent, after spraying down with the best scent killer I have, was to get past this trail and set up downwind. I took it as slow as I could, remembering that the sun would not last very long. When I was halfway across the oak stand I pause again, looking for any movement, but see nothing. After a few more painfully loud steps, I reached the trail and lo’ and behold, a fresh scrape is right in front of me. A new one. No leaves in it, wet and a nice big track right in the center. Seeing that it was wet told me he was not far away, being that the rain had left almost a week ago. As I moved downwind of it, the scent hit me like I was walking into a public toilet. Musty and strong, I knew he was only minutes ahead of me. I thought I was too late for this one. But I continued optimistically and went through with my plan. I found a couple Myrtle bushes about forty yards to the downwind side and put myself between them.
As I looked around I could see this was a good place to be. The trail ran perpendicular to me and I could see a few more rubs along this path. I began raking the corn flakes away from my feet so I could afford minimal movement if and when I needed to. I still had about two hours of daylight left and I needed to be able to shuffle my stance when necessary.
As I was kicking the dry and noisy leaves, it occurred to me that this is how it sounds when he makes his scrapes. No trying to be quiet about it, he simply rakes the leaves away. This was a natural sound, as bucks are concerned, during the rut. So I continued and made a clearing about a yard or so around me. I knocked an arrow and drew back to get a feeling for the anticipated moment. As I drew back, my elbow hit one of the Myrtle branches and it was something I couldn’t live with. I let down my draw and reached back to snap off the twig. Again, I reasoned, exactly how it sounds when a buck rubs trees, marking his scent along his path. No worries, I thought, just do it.
At this point I began to let my attention wander. As I was breaking off the last twig, I heard the sound of leaves being kicked around and the thumping of footsteps. I caught the movement I was searching for. The trouble is, it was behind me and almost downwind of me. I froze and looked to see him, standing there. I could tell he didn’t see me as he walked towards my port three-quarter, nose up in the air, searching for the wind. He stopped and looked my way for a moment and then turned to look forward again. He was playing the wind like the champion he was.
I estimated him to be at least four years old and he was no dummy either. He took a few more steps and caught my wind. My heart sank as I watched him tense up, turn and lope out of sight. It all happened in a matter of less than two minutes after reaching my position. About twenty minutes of effort, shot out like it was just a dream. His body was big, dark and healthy. Rack was a gorgeous eight or ten point, gleaming through the woods as if to mock me. I didn’t see the infamous white flag and he didn’t bother to blow at me, but he knew something wasn’t right, so off he went. In a few seconds, it was as quiet as if there was never a sound made. To be humbled by the beast is to know defeat; standing there, raking corn flakes. I thought forty yards was far enough. He flanks me by twenty. Game over.